I was thinking this morning, on my day off for Independence Day here in the US (while waving a flag and shooting off fireworks while drinking beer and saying “hold mah beer and watch this”) about why Japanese is so hard. I was rather lamenting in my head about something I’ve been harping about in previous posts – how there seems to be no one resource that actually tells you what you need to know about Japanese and you kind of have to piece it together from a bunch of disparate sources.
But that’s a matter of information. That’s not what makes it hard.
One could say that the reason it’s hard is because there are so many different kanji to learn, along with difference pronunciations. But I don’t think that’s what makes it hard.
One could say that the reason it’s hard is because of the very different grammar and vocabulary. But I don’t think that’s what makes it hard.
One could also say that the reason it’s hard is because there’s a whole different set of characters and sounds to learn. But I don’t think that’s what makes it hard either.
I think what makes it hard is the same reason that driving two thousand miles across country is difficult. You take a look at the map, you look at your schedule, and wonder “how the heck am I going to do this?” But none of the maps are really complete. You just have to start the journey and see where it takes you.
I think that’s what makes it hard. You stand on a mountain and see the entire realm of Japanese in front of you, and you are wondering “how the heck am I going to find my way through that?”
The trick, I think, is to just start somewhere.
Learn the syllabaries. Hiragana, then katakana. Don’t worry about the rest. It’s not because the rest is not important, but it’s really easy to get discouraged. Remember that even just knowing the hiragana and katakana is more than probably all of your friends can do. You don’t even have to know a single word. Then you’ll find yourself going “oh, hey. I don’t know what that word means, but I can pronounce it!”
Then learn a kanji. Just a kanji. One single, solitary kanji. Perhaps 人. As you learn these things, you will find interesting paths to go down. Feel free. Like you might see 大人 and wonder how to pronounce it, then you’ll look it up and say “oh! big person! adult!”. And you’ll know two kanji. You won’t know all the readings, but again, that’s okay. It will come.
That’s two kanji more than you knew before. Don’t worry about the fact that there are two thousand more. You know two kanji!
At this point you might want to study it a bit more rigorously, and that’s fine. But don’t forget that your journey started with a single hiragana syllable.
Now you know a couple of hundred syllables and a hundred or so characters, and a couple of kanji. It’s a start, right?
Now find a teaching method that works for you. There are dozens out there, each one wants your money, and each one has a different way of teaching. There’s Japanese Level Up, Japanese Pod 101, Rosetta Stone, Puni Puni, lots of different blogs, etc. They’re not all the same, but they’re also not all complete. Some even complement each other – Japanese Pod 101 and Japanese Level Up seem to be two resources that could complement each other to good effect (Japanese Pod 101 has very high quality videos – they’re also not anywhere near as comprehensive as what Japanese Level Up offers in terms of sheer completeness). But if one isn’t working for you, try another. See if your local community college has Japanese classes, too. I know here in Austin they’re $85 per credit hour, which is not bad at all.
But above all, keep exploring. Watch YouTube videos of native speakers. It will sound like gibberish when you start, but as you learn you’ll start to pick out words. Those will really help you to get the cadence, and they’re usually pretty entertaining to boot! There’s old HaroMoni stuff, AKBingo, Downtown DK and Gaki No Tsukai, and quite a few other things as well. You’ll also start to get a feel for the culture and learn things that the books don’t really teach you. Start with the English subbed ones if you want, but pay attention to what they’re saying, and try unsubbed ones every now and then. It’s not so important that you do it right, as much as that you just do it.
I would, though, recommend in general staying away from anime and manga though when you’re just starting out – or at least don’t try to use it to learn. It’ll teach you stuff you just have to unlearn later. Wait till you at least know enough to understand what not to use.
And if you need to take a break, take one, but just don’t make it too long or you’ll start forgetting.
I guess what I’m saying is, don’t let it intimidate you. Take one step at a time. It’s a hard language, yes. Actually, it’s a very hard language. But it’s only hard because there’s so much of it. Take it step by step and it’s no worse than anything else you’ve had to learn in your life. Everything you learn is still something that 99.999% of Americans (or people in your country that’s not Japan) probably have no clue about.